In the first seconds of Warwick Thornton’s outback Western Sweet Country a screaming brawl happens off screen, the camera lingering on a pot about to boil over. It’s a plain statement of intent from a film all about the inevitability of violence in the scorched, racially segregated Australian desert of the 1920s. The sheer heat tips most of the “whitefellas” over the edge of insanity, which they take out on their Aboriginal workers.
One such worker is Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), whose decent life on the farmstead of good-hearted egalitarian Fred Smith (Sam Neill, quietly tremendous) is upended by the drunken, racist ex-soldier Harry March (Ewen Leslie). In a truly terrifying scene, March rapes Sam’s wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber), and in a later attempt to break into the Kellys’ house, he is killed by Sam.
The Kellys flee into the desert, and the chase is on – stark, unrelenting, and brutal. Short, sharp bursts of savage violence erupt in the outback, and the heat gradually wears away the minds of the white pursuers. As the sun beats down, it hits all your senses – you can hear its buzz and feel its sting, and a surreal advance into a salt desert wasteland puts you on another planet.
In his first film role, Hamilton Morris is stern and commanding, a man of few words but a surfeit of imposing presence, and of the white cast, Bryan Brown is the standout as the arrogant Sergeant Fletcher. Watching his self-righteousness slip away is very cathartic, and fantastically acted.
Not only is Sweet Country a superb genre film, its focus on Aboriginal lives, giving them voices and agency, makes it more than a little revolutionary. Most US Westerns fail at their indigenous representation, and this Aussie film is here to show them how it’s done.
CAST: Sam Neill, Ewen Leslie, Thomas M. Wright, Bryan Brown, Warwick Thornton
DIRECTOR: Warwick Thornton
WRITERS: Steven McGregor, David Tranter
SYNOPSIS: A period Western set on the Northern Territory frontier where justice itself is put on trial.